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Hunter-Reay wins IndyCar championship in nail-biter

Published September 16, 2012

MIKE CONWAY CRASHES AT INDIANAPOLIS IN 2010

Last year’s IZOD IndyCar Series finale ended in tragedy with the death of Dan Wheldon. This year’s finish was triumphant, with a dramatic, down-to-the-wire, championship won by Ryan Hunter-Reay and an exciting, final laps pass for the victory by Ed Carpenter.

For the third year in a row, Penske Racing driver Will Power was poised to capture the title but yet again it was not to be. Going into the MAVTV 500 at California Speedway, all the Australian had to do was keep it between the walls. Once again, his inability to race on ovals did him in when he lost control and crashed on Lap 55 of the scheduled 250.

Although crew members from all three Penske Racing entries – a total of 20 from Power’s team as well as helpers from Ryan Briscoe’s and Helio Castroneves’s – literally rebuilt the car in the garage and sent it back out for Power to finish 24th and score enough points to force Hunter-Reay to finish fifth or better, it was for naught as Hunter-Reay made it through to the end of the race uninterrupted, ending up fourth to win the championship by three points.

Ironically, Power nearly collected Hunter-Reay when he crashed, the eventual champion passing him on the high side as he spun out of control. As the new champ collected his thoughts afterward, he made mention of Power jokingly suggesting that he might crash his opponent in order to win.

Hunter-Reay’s first words upon exiting his car, however, had nothing to do with Power. “Oh, my God,” he said as he stood up in the cockpit.

“We were struggling all week,” he told a television reporter a short time later. “We were really in the woods. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I just drove 500 miles like it was for my life. I can’t believe we are IndyCar champions. My dream has come true.”

To his credit, Power congratulated the new champion. “He’s a deserving champion,” he said. “He’s a fighter.”

And he owned up to his own shortcoming. “Obviously, it’s ovals where I lack.”

Dario Franchitti, who was champion the last three years, finished second in the race behind Carpenter. He’d been leading but had to check up as they came upon a slower car and Carpenter went by him on the high side for the lead and the victory.

Scott Dixon finished third, Hunter-Reay was fourth, Castroneves was fifth, Graham Rahal finished sixth, Takuma Sato (he crashed on the white-flag lap, just as he did at the Indianapolis 500 in May) still finished seventh, pole-sitter Marco Andretti was eighth, Katherine Legge was ninth and drove the best race of her IndyCar career in so doing, and Charlie Kimball was tenth.

Canadian Alex Tagliani of Montreal looked for awhile as if he might win the race but lost his engine in the late going. He eventually was classified 20th and finished the season 17th in points.

James Hinchcliffe of Oakville did not have a good race. He was assessed a drive-through penalty for jumping a restart and eventually finished three laps off the pace in 13th place. He finished the season in eighth position.

“Hinch” will soon be off to Australia – his girlfriend’s from there – to race in the Australian V8 Supercars Championship Gold Coast race next month. His sponsor, Go Daddy, is making a big push Down Under and Hinchcliffe will be racing and promoting his sponsor’s brand.

OTHER WEEKEND RACING

– D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas won his sixth race of the season at Riverside Speedway outside Antigonish, N.S., Saturday night but it still wasn’t enough to clinch his second NASCAR Canadian Tire Series national championship.

He’ll have to wait now till next Saturday at Kawartha Speedway near Peterborough, where it’s expected he’ll wrap things up.

J.R. Fitzpatrick of Cambridge was second in the Down East contest, with Mark Dilley of Barrie third, defending champion Scott Steckly of Milverton third and Ron Beauchamp Jr. of Windsor fifth.

– At Virginia International Raceway, Muscle Milk Team Picket’s Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf won the American Le Mans Series race in their Honda Performance Development P1 car.

Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner wrapped up the GT class championship for Corvette Racing and Cooper MacNeil (wiith Leh Keen for this race) won the GT Challenge championship.

The ALMS will end its season Oct. 20 at Road Atlanta when the Petit Le Mans will be run.

– Back at California Speedway, Carlos Muniz might have won the Indy Lights race but David Ostella of Maple finished second and that is the best finish for this young Canadian racer in that series and the first time in his Indy Lights career that he’s been on the podium. Congratulations, David!

WILL CONWAY GET THE SAME SYMPATHY AS LAUDA?

Posted Sept. 14: Director Ron Howard is putting the finishing touches to his new Formula One racing movie, Rush, that dramatizes the season-long fight for the World Championship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976.

That was the year when Lauda barely escaped with his life from a horrible crash and fire at the Nurburgring during the German Grand Prix. He had not wanted to race at the ‘Ring because he was worried about safety but the other drivers voted to go ahead and he went along. Terribly burned, it was almost unbelievable when, just six weeks later, he returned to race in the Italian GP.

The championship went down to the final race in Japan with Hunt trailing Lauda by three points. The race started in a torrential downpour and Lauda called it a day after two laps, saying he considered his life too precious to risk in those conditions, thus losing the championship to Hunt by a single point.

It was called as brave a decision as the one he made to return to the cockpit so soon after his crash in Germany.

I thought of that today when the news arrived from California that Mike Conway had stepped out of the cockpit of A.J. Foyt’s car on the eve of the season-ending race of the IZOD IndyCar Series at California Speedway because he’d decided oval racing was too dangerous. He’s been replaced by Wade Cunningham.

“I’m truly sorry for putting the team and our sponsors in a difficult position, but this is the hardest decision I have ever made in my racing career,” said Conway, who missed the 2010 season after being hurt in a crash at the Indianapolis 500. A talented road racer who had success in British F2 and GP2 — Conway finished third in this year’s Honda Indy Toronto — he escaped injury at Indy in May when he had another bad crash.

“I’ve come to realize I’m not comfortable on the ovals and no longer wish to compete on them,” he said in his statement. “I want to stress that I am not finished racing and to this end, I would love to continue with Foyt Racing, but that’s something we need to discuss in the future.”

A.J. Foyt’s son Larry Foyt, who runs Foyt Racing, said that he respected Conway’s decision.

“Mike’s been a great asset to our team, and I’m disappointed that we can’t finish out the season together,” he said. “However, it took a lot of courage for Mike to come forward and we respect him highly for that and we certainly want to honour his decision.”

I have no idea how Conway plans to continue his career, at least in the Indy car series, where oval racing is a fact of life.

And to admit to being scared is not something that goes over well with most oval-track racing fans – or with old oval racers like A.J. Foyt.

Larry Foyt might have said all the right things for public consumption, but you can bet his father was saying something else behind closed doors.

For the Indy fraternity, it’s better to own up to having reservations in advance, rather than to back out later.

Take one of the greatest car designers, builders and mechanics in Indy car racing history, A.J. Watson, who one year in the 1950s built most of the cars that were on the track at Indianapolis.

He tried driving once but never again.

How come? he was asked.

“I suffered from severe stomach problems,” said Watson.

“No guts.”

#

Conway’s departure has taken some of the wind out of the sails of the Indy car finale, in which Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power will fight it out for the series championship.

Instead of only running stories about the championship battle – Power leads Hunter-Reay by a mere 17 points going into the MAVTV 500 (see George’s TV Listings for Race Fans for time and channel) — the major Internet racing sites carried stories about the Foyt driver’s defection, sometimes more prominently.

Although it’s said that there are upwards of 30 different scenarios in which one or the other of Power or Hunter-Reay can win the championship, this is not last week’s NASCAR race for the Chase, in which there was potential for genuine surprise.

In short, Power will win or Hunter-Reay will win and possibly because one will get caught up in a crash or suffer some kind of mechanical difficulty.

If the past is any indicator, Power won’t win because he is not a good oval-track racer. He’s been in this situation before and he’s always come out on the low end.

IndyCar’s insane engine-change rule might have an effect, as well. That’s where the driver is penalized 10 starting positions because the people who make the engines don’t do their jobs correctly and the engines just about all have to be changed.

In the case of California, more than half the starting field — 14 drivers, including the two fighting for the title and stars like our own James Hinchcliffe, Alex Tagliani and Helio Castroneves — will be handed 10-grid-position penalties for unapproved engine changes.

I mean, you want stupid? Cunningham, who doesn’t even race for Foyt but has been called in to fill Conway’s seat, will be penalized 10 grid positions because Foyt changed the car’s engine.

So he’s penalized before he even sits down in the car?

Nuts.

#

The NASCAR Canadian Tire Series is racing at Riverside Speedway outside Antigonish, N.S., this weekend. It’s unlikely that D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas will win the championship and the title fight will most likely be settled in the season finale next week at Kawartha Speedway outside Peterborough. . . . And unless the weather creates a problem, the eighth annual Canadian Sprint Car Nationals will be held Saturday night at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve outside Brantford. . . . If dirt trackin’ ain’t your style, the British Empire Motor Club’s annual Indian Summer Trophy Races will be held at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park at the weekend. A highlight is the annual three-hour enduro-GT Challenge, which will go to the post later on Saturday afternoon.

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